Soooo...that was a pretty good first weekeend for your Minnesota Golden Gopher hockey squad, no? A 5-1 and 7-1 domination of the then #16 Michigan State Spartans on home ice made quite a statement, as the Gophers enter weekend #2 of the season as the undisputed #1 team in both the USA Today/USA Hockey and USCHO polls. Boston College? Lost, believe it or not, leaving the North Dakota Fighting
Who Whioux ( not sure who coined that one ***Update, it was coined by somebody over at GPL*** for UND, but 1) well done and 2) it will be their official team name on this blog going forward) as the new #2 team in the land. Probably explains any annoying and obnoxious sounds you heard emanating from Grand Forks or any uptick in trolling from the UND goons, which are not to be confused with the cheers of jubliation and joy from Fargo about their juggernaut NDSU football squad.
Gophers and Fighting Whioux don't meet until late January, so there'll be plenty of time to make fun of UND, but for now, let's look at this weekend's matchup on the road against the Michigan Tech Huskies. We haven't played enough hockey yet to know if Tech is better or worse than Michigan State, but the question is, will Gopher hockey fans be happy if Minnesota wins, but doesn't dominate the Huskies? Like If they don't dominate Michigan Tech in all facets like they did against Michigan State and generally blow the Huskies right out of Houghton into Lake Superior, will Minnesota fans be ok with that? Because I'm a little worried the Route O' Sparty might have set the bar a little TOO high, you know? I'm VERY interested, but also a little nervous, to see how this team responds after an A-triple-plus performance to start the season. Do they come out overconfident and don't snap out of it until Tech smacks them in the mouth (might I remind you of the post-October Friday night issues from last year- and the four years before that)? Do they come out flying again and take it to the Huskies from the opening get-go? Or something in between?
Tech split their opening series with Lake Superior, losing 4-2 in the opener then coming out gangbusters in an 8-4 offensive explosion last Saturday night. On paper Tech is almost the opposite of Michigan State, so it should present a solid test for the vaunted Gopher offense. While Michigan State had almost total inexperience on their back line, experience on defense is the real strength of the Huskies as, according to their official season preview, they return eight defensemen from a year ago, including three seniors:
Captain Carl Nielsen and assistant captain Steven Seigo headline the group. Nielsen turned in a strong 2011-12 season. The 6-4, 225-pound stay-at-home defenseman chipped in on offense with a goal and six assists in 37 games. Seigo, who ranked among the WCHA's top-scoring defensemen each of the past two seasons, seems ready to continue his production in 2012-13.
Tommy Brown is the other senior. The Prince Albert, Sask., native, who played in just three games a year ago while battling injuries, is 100 percent heading into his final campaign.
Among the other returning defensemen is Brad Stebner, who put together an impressive sophomore campaign a year ago. The junior assistant captain led Tech in plus-minus rating last season with a plus-12.
Junior Daniel Sova returned to Tech in great shape looking to improve upon his sophomore season, where he put up three goals and 10 assists. The 6-4, 225-pound Sova is a mainstay on the power play, where he tallied 2-3=5 a year ago.
Sophomores Justin Fillion, Riley Sweeney and Jimmy Davis all gained valuable experience a year ago and should be more prepared for playing against the top players in college hockey.
Freshman Walker Hyland could add some offensive ability to the Huskies' back end. The Woodbury, Minn., native put up 44 points in 53 games a year ago with the Alberni Valley Bulldogs of the BCHL.
There, now you know all about Tech's D (let's be honest, I was going to paraphrase most or all of that anyway, so might as well cut and paste straight from the, um, "Husky's" mouth, if you will. You're welcome). Seeing the depth and experience they have back there, as well as the style Tech has played under third year coach Mel Pearson (which is not exactly wide-open, high-scoring hockey), I don't know what would be more shocking this weekend: if the new Tyler Perry movie coming out this weekend gets horrible reviews and people actually DON'T go see it (there is no way the movie won't be terrible. They're all terrible. But Tyler Perry continues to make terrible movies because for some reason people go see them. So it would now be more shocking if people DIDN'T show up to see it than if they did. I only mention this because the commercial for his terrible movie just played on Pandora for like the 5th time in the past hour) or a staunch Tech defense allows the Gophers to skate freely through the neutral zone all weekend like Sparty allowed them to?
Of everything that happened last weekend, I couldn't believe State were either unwilling or unable to make defensive adjustments to slow Minnesota down. No forecheck, no pressure in Minnesota's end, and very little resistance once the Gophers' got the puck and started up ice. Again, I would be shocked if Pearson and the Huskies allow it to happen as frequently as it did. That's not to say this is the best defensive team the Gophers will see, as Tech was a bottom third defensive team a year ago, but their game is to slow it down and NOT get into a track meet. It's also not to say Minnesota's ridiculous depth and talent won't find ways to score, it just likely won't seem to come as easily as it did against MSU, and they may be forced to spend more than a second or two defending their own zone.
Both the Gophers and Huskies have questions in goal, and we'll see if either teams finds answers this weekend. For the U junior Michael Shibrowski and freshman Adam Wilcox both played well but were rarely tested. They'll split starts again this weekend, and we'll see if we get a little more data to learn from than we did against MSU. Tech might have three guys competing for the job as they played two different goalies against Lake Superior and saw both guys allow four goals: senior Kevin Genoe got the win Saturday night stopping 18 of 22, and freshman Pheonix Copley got the loss Friday night stopping 14 of 18. The possible third man in is another freshman Jamie Phillips, a seventh round pick of the Winnipeg Jets. Expect to see a different goalie starting each game for both teams.
Offensively, Michigan Tech lost some talent from last year but do return their top two goal scorers in Ryan Furne (who scored 12) and David Johnstone (potted 11 a year ago), and will throw out a balanced attack. In their eight goal outburst against Lake Superior, Milos Gordic and Tanner Kero each had three points, while Johnstone and his brother Jacob each had two points on the night. They also look to have a solid freshmen class that'll contribute right away too. The Huskies, surprising at least to me, were sixth in scoring in conference play last year with 85 goals, part of the reason they had such a good year and finished one win shy of sixth place, and home ice in the first round, of the WCHA.
They're likely a middle-of-the-pack WCHA team again this season, and remember they split with the Gophers at Mariucci last year, stealing the first game 3-2 in OT (what? The Gophers playing poorly on Friday night? That never happens!) then got trounced by a suddenly motivated Gopher squad 6-2 Saturday night (what? Minnesota playing like they're supposed to on a Saturday night? That never happens either!). Tech should present a better test than Sparty last week, and we'll see how the Gophers handle their first road trip of the season. For Minnesota, things I'm watching for besides how the goaltenders do (duh), I want to see if Lucia sticks with the same six defensemen as last weekend, if the two odd guys out (last weekend it was Jake Parenteau and Justin Holl) get time on the fourth line again, and who else joins Tom Serratore and perhaps the extra defenseman on said 4th line. I would expect the top three lines to stay exactly the same, because obviously that worked pretty well the first weekend. How will the defensemen handle more pressure and forechecking (I would imagine quite well. My gawd, when's the last time you saw a group of defensemen that can skate this well? And that's not including the NHL), how will the power play do if they actually, you know, might need some key goals instead of already being up three or four or five zip, and how will the Gophers respond when (I'm assuming that's when) the Huskies get physical on the smaller sheet in Houghton than they play on at Mariucci?
Both games are at 6pm on FSN, or 1500 ESPN on the radio, or Gophersports.com is offering free audio on the internet.